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Starters keep Cubs in contention

CHICAGO — Sure, the Chicago Cubs have Sammy Sosa, Moises Alou and a lineup that can beat opponents in about a dozen different ways.

And yes, they have one of baseball's best managers in Dusty Baker, a master of the game's intricacies with a shaman-like ability to motivate players.

But with apologies to Baker, Sosa and the rest of the guys, the Cubs have their pitching phenoms to thank for this dream season. Mark Prior, Kerry Wood, Matt Clement and Carlos Zambrano not only have Chicago in a rare playoff race, the twenty-somethings just might have the makings of the NL's next super staff.

"I hear a lot of guys that come through, whoever our starter is, they say they hate facing us," said catcher Paul Bako, who came to Chicago after stints with pitching powerhouses Atlanta and Houston.

"It's a big advantage."

The Cubs have emerged as one of baseball's biggest surprises this season. One year after going 67-95 and getting not one, but two managers fired, they enter Friday just one game behind Houston in the NL Central.

At 82-70, the Cubs already have guaranteed themselves a winning season, only their seventh in 31 years. And their pitching is largely responsible.

Just look at the numbers. Prior ranks second in the NL in wins (16) and third in ERA (2.47), and is 8-1 with a 1.45 ERA since returning from the disabled list Aug. 4. Only two years out of college, he made his first All-Star team this season.

Wood leads the majors with 254 strikeouts — Prior is third with 221 — and also is among the NL leaders in ERA (3.31), innings pitched (204) and complete games (four). A first-time All-Star, he's already matched his career high with 13 wins.

Clement has allowed just three infield hits in his last two starts, and is 11-5 in his last 20 starts.

And then there's Zambrano, who has a 1.48 ERA over his last eight starts.

"These guys are stepping up and really pitching well," Baker said. "Most of them are ailing, like everybody else on every other team. But they are putting whatever is bothering them behind them and doing what they have to do to help us win."

That they are. Wood's shutout of the New York Mets on Wednesday gave him 13 wins, matching Clement and Zambrano. Throw in Prior's 16 victories, and the Cubs have four pitchers with at least 13 wins for the first time since 1945.

Not only that, but Philadelphia and Atlanta are the only NL teams that can top that this season. The Phillies have four starters with 14 or more wins, while the Braves have five pitchers with double-digit victories.

"It's a lot of fun," Wood said. "Right now, we're not so much looking individual, 'trying to follow the next guy,' as much as to keep the team in the pennant race. Obviously, that's way more important than any fun game we had going on or friendly competition.

"We go out there and we're playing like it's Game 7 right now," Wood added. "We've got to win all these games and we're doing it."

In the last four games, Prior, Wood, Clement and Zambrano combined for an 0.80 ERA over 33 2-3 innings, allowing only 19 hits while striking out 36. The Cubs went 3-1 in that span, despite scoring only nine runs.

"I thought we pitched a heck of a series against them. We pitched well enough to win all three games, and we came up with nothing," said Mets manager Art Howe, who knows something about dominant starters after spending the previous seven seasons in Oakland.

"They threw three very good pitchers at us, and they were on top of their game."

What makes Chicago's run even scarier is that Clement and Wood have been pitching with injuries. Clement has been slowed by a strained groin since he got hit in the calf during his Sept. 3 start against St. Louis, and he was limping visibly when he held the Mets to an unearned run Monday night.

Wood has been bothered by a stiff back recently, and it was so sore before Wednesday's start that Baker wasn't sure he could pitch. Then Wood went out and pitched a four-hit shutout for his fourth complete game of the year, striking out 11.

"It's a pennant race," Prior said. "You've got to do whatever you can to get your job done. And everyone's doing that right now."